Lijiang in West China is a beautiful old city in the mountains and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts more tourists per year than any other site or city worldwide. Reason enough to go... and reason enough not to go. Lijiang is turned into a touristic theme park where you fight your way through small alleys overrun by yellow, red & blue baseball caps. Still, walking through the small cobbled streets, looking at the traditional houses, overseeing the city from a hill, it´s hard not to be astonished by its preserved beauty.
For us, Lijiang was also the base camp for the 2 day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge. In this area the Yangtze River smashes into two mountains becoming a really small gorge where, as the legend tells us, a tiger escaped its hunter by leaping on a stone to the other side.
We started the high trail over the mountain together with a Spanish geologist, Xavi, and two Chinese guys, Gong & Samuel, whom we met in our hostel. Apart from the fun we had together these guys were the best hiking partners we could wish for. Xavi explained everything about the different sort of stones and the old landslides we encountered. Gong and Samuel knew exactly which dishes to choose from every menu.
The first day we walked to the top, where we had a great view from above over the gorge and the mountain scenery. After 7 hours of hiking we finally threw out our shoes and enjoyed the sunset over the mountains with a cold beer. Our room in the little wooden bungalow on the top had a balcony where we saw the sun rise again next morning. On our way down we finally got to the river instead of looking at it from above. We were standing between the mountains which looked like 2 steep walls almost touching each other leaving just a little bit of room to let that powerful water through. An amazing piece of nature of which we hope it will be preserved as the Chinese are already test-drilling and setting up construction sites nearby. The rumor goes they want to build another big dam in this part of the river.
When we got out of the airport at Chengdu, a city we never heard of but has 11 million inhabitants, we couldn’t see the sun for 2 days and learned what smog looks like. A grey blanket over your city which makes you feel depressed and longing for blue skies. Kinda like Berlin in the winter, only much warmer.
Although Chengdu is a huge city, it’s absolutely laid back. It’s located in the Sichuan Province and famous for its tea-house culture. Everywhere you see small cafe´s or terraces where people are playing cards or Mahjong and enjoying their cup of tea. Buying tea in local shops is transformed in a long ritual in which you get to taste the tea and they explain every impact the tea has on body and mind. Strolling over the antique market we found our beautiful Mahjong game which we bought after hard, long and intense bargaining. We walked away several times, J played the angry part and B acted insulted. We´re really becoming experts in bargaining and the bartenders and taxi drivers in Berlin will suffer! Promise!
What? 2,50 for a beer? I´ll give you 1,- for it. But only because it´s you my friend. Because I like you!
On the other hand, what we´re really looking forward to is taking a taxi without the hassle regarding the destination. Imagine:
- To Club Watergate please!
- No Sir, Watergate is closed, there was a huge fire, but I´ll take you to my brothers Doenerladen. There they have good beer too!
- No, take me to Watergate.
- But Sir, my family has to eat too!
In China it was helpful though when you got pulled into a restaurant before you could refuse. In Chengdu we discovered the Sichuan Hot Pot this way. And if they say Hot Pot, they do mean HOOOOOOOT. In the middle of the table they place a boil with liquid filled with chilis, only chili and some more chilis. In this liquid which makes you sweat just by looking at it, you cook your fish, meat and vegetables. The restaurant owner took our picture book and pointed at a lot of things. We nodded yes like stupid tourists, but the result was a great meal, loads of tears and sweating only to be stopped with liters of beer and kilo´s of white rice.
Chengdu is also famous for its Panda Breeding Resort. Here scientists perform research on breeding and survival skills of the Panda. If you look at them you´ll understand why they need a little help. God, are they lazy. The only thing that matters to them is eating bamboo. They sit like All Bundy on the couch leaning against a tree eating their bamboo sticks and having crumbs all over them. It´s hard to imagine that the Panda´s already live 8 million years and are one of the oldest species alive. We spent a day at the resort as volunteers and got to feed them and see them up-close. Look at the pictures and smile. God, are the cute!
China is the land of contradictions. Half of its inhabitants (and that´s a looot of people) have to live of less than 1 dollar a day. The other half though is definitely occupied by a natural habitat of consuming operandi. We knew China had opened up to the world but still expected a little bit more of the good old communism. No way, capitalism has won and stroke down communism like Barcelona beat Manchester; without a chance!
On the main square of Chengdu there´s a huge statue of Mao. Around him there are huge buildings with neon lights that perform a light show at night that would make the King of Pop jealous. The arm of Mao is stretched out over his people pointing at something. If you look close and follow his finger, you´ll see that he is pointing at a huge yellow arched M. Hopefully Mao has a sense of humor, otherwise he is turning in his mausoleum.
Mao is also eternally present at Tianmen Square in Beijing. His huge portrait hangs over the entrance of the Forbidden City and his corpse can still be visited in the big mausoleum in the middle of the square. On this huge square surrounded by socialist buildings, you only have to close your eyes to see the big parades go by.
What a contrast compared to the architecture of the Forbidden City and the not-so-socialist life the emperors lived between these walls. Here you´ll find palace after palace, temples, beautiful gardens and nicely decorated houses for the emperors, his family and his many many concubines. We walked around for many hours listening to the audio guide and wondered with a little smile how life would look like between these magnificent walls.
What is better? A non-egalitarian society which is ruled by divine emperors or a supposed to be egalitarian socialist society ruled by some dictator and his party chefs? In both societies the few have everything and the many have not. At least the emperors had the courage to state that they were better than everybody else and didn’t create a lie about the farmers and simple people being the backbone of society. Mao souvenirs are sold all over Beijing, you´ll find his little red book all over town, the Chinese visit his mausoleum and get their picture taken by his huge portrait. How are we supposed to interpreted this? Like an innocent curiosity displayed by Chinese tourists visiting their capital? Like a distasteful naivety by the masses? Or do they really believe in the myth of Mao and close their eyes for his monstrosities? We´ll guess we´ll never know, because political conversations are not done, especially not with strangers or tourists. Who could blame them?
1 thing Mao accomplished though with his cultural revolution. In the 5 weeks we travelled through China, we didn’t see 1 person reading a book in public. On all the planes, trains, automobiles and busses we took, we didn’t discover 1 book, only a lot of video games played on touch screens.
We saved the best for last. One hasn’t experienced Beijing without eating Peking-Duck and one hasn’t seen China without climbing the Great Wall. The desire to have a good Peking-Duck led us to a well known huge typical Chinese restaurant. After been seated we ordered 1 duck, some bread and some sauces. If you order duck, its only duck you eat! After some time and build-up suspension our duck was brought in on a tray and sliced up live before our eyes. His head was nicely opened and gracefully presented in the middle of the table.... Now you guess......
After the waitress taught us how to make the proper sandwich our senses were delighted with the taste of the original Peking-Duck!
Climbing on the Great Wall is possible in many locations around Beijing. We decided for the furthest, least touristic and mostly unrenovated part. Walking turned into climbing on a wall that was sometimes near to collapse. The sense of history, human accomplishment and length was ever present and overwhelming. At some parts we were completely alone with ancient name inscriptions carved in the stones and the view of kilometers of wall climbing up and down the hills. Again we experienced one of the great world wonders that didn’t disappoint. One has to be astonished by the greatness and pointlessness of the endeavors of mankind.
Asia was about to end for us and we had a 24 hour flight to Cuba ahead. What better way to end these 4 incredible months then to have drinks with friends we met on the road?! Not only Xavi made his way to Beijing, but also Ingrid and Geoffroy, whom we met in India, Laos and again China, made our last evening in Asia a perfect farewell party.
Thank you Asia and here we come Latin-America!!!!